Social stigma of contracting a sexually transmitted infection worse than that of an unplanned pregnancy
New research reveals awareness of sexually transmitted diseases low and young people putting themselves at risk
Well-known journalist, author and model Amanda Brunker lends her support
Monday 22nd March 2010: Young people are inadvertently putting themselves at risk of getting an STI by avoiding discussing the subject of their partner’s sexual history prior to sleeping together, according to a new report launched today in Dublin. 'The Voice of Young People - A Report on Attitudes to Sexual Health’ incorporates the results of qualitative research conducted with young Irish adults aged 18 – 20 years in relation to sexual health, sex education and sexually transmitted infections. The research also included parents of children aged 14-16 to understand how they approach the issue of sexual health with their children.
The report - part of the Pfizer 'Way2Go’ programme*, which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of young people in Ireland - reveals a consistent view amongst 18-20 year olds than even in comparison to 5 years ago a higher proportion of teenagers are becoming sexually active before the age of 16 years. The majority of young people reported becoming sexually active (having sexual intercourse) between the age of 16-17 years, with a minority reporting having sex as young as 15 years old. This is contrary to what many of the parents felt was an appropriate age to start having sex, with many of them reporting to be negatively disposed towards their children engaging in sexual intercourse before the age of 18.
Speaking at the launch Dr John Lambert, Consultant in Infectious Diseases and Genitourinary Medicine, Mater Misericordiae and Rotunda Hospitals and University College Dublin commented; "Sexually transmitted infections give rise to illness, infertility and death and early detection and treatment is important to protect people’s health and prevent spread. This research indicates that although young people’s awareness of the term sexually transmitted infection is relatively high, their knowledge of specific STIs and their respective symptoms and consequences, remains low. This lack of awareness and understanding is putting their health at risk."
In the main the primary concern amongst young people regarding STIs was not the potential health consequences, but the social embarrassment that it might cause in the event of their friends finding out. Both males and females reported that that the social stigma of contracting an STI would be worse than that of an unplanned pregnancy. Given the high level of social embarrassment associated with becoming infected with an STI, almost all respondents reported that they would not tell anyone if they got an infection. Worryingly they also said that they would not confront the individual from whom they contracted the infection out of fear that he/she might discuss the issue in public and even blame them as the source of the STI. The most recent national statistics on sexually transmitted diseases provided by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre 2006 reflect a trebling in the number of Irish STI notified cases in the period 1995 – 2006.
The findings on low awareness of specific STIs is supported by other Irish research, most notably the ISSHR 2004 -2005 survey which demonstrated that only 37% of men and 60% of women have "good" knowledge of chlamydia.
In the Report young people state they have had more than one sexual relationship (i.e. more than one partner with whom they had sexual intercourse) and a sizable number of both male and females said they have had a one night stand (i.e. sexual intercourse with no intention of a relationship) on more than one occasion. A notable number of males and some females have engaged in sexual intercourse on more than one occasion without using a condom. In such circumstances, many said they were intoxicated. In the event of casual sex, condoms were viewed by all to be a necessity, but the reason for this was out of fear of unplanned pregnancy rather than protection against contracting an STI. In addition carrying a condom was seen by many of the young men as confirmation that the girl was "seeking sex" or "easy". Similarly although a significant number of young girls reported that it was acceptable and even responsible to carry a condom on a night out, only a small minority chose to do so, saying they worried about the message they may be giving out.
Also speaking at the launch Dr. Shirley McQuade, Medical Director, The Well Woman Clinic, commented; "As is often the case with many things in life, people think an STI won’t happen to them. But the message is clear; anyone can get an STI and having unprotected sex increases the risk. An STI may lie dormant in the body with no symptoms; the individual may be completely unaware that it is causing long-term damage to themselves and to those with whom they engage in sexual activity. For example one of the most common STIs is chlamydia which if left untreated it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, but if identified in time chlamydia may be successfully treated with antibiotics. If you take a risk and have unprotected sex, get tested afterwards. And if you are about to start a new relationship and begin to have unprotected sex, both partners should get tested beforehand. Don’t put yourself at risk."
Teenagers felt uncomfortable discussing the subject of sex with their parents due to social embarrassment, a desire for privacy and differences in values between them. In general parents acknowledged they play a role in the sex education of their children but cited difficulties in discussing sex as very often their children will disengage when the topic is brought up. Many parents report a concern as to the appropriate age to educate their children on sexual issues, while others acknowledged a lack the required skills to approach the issue in an effective way. As result many felt the issue was best addressed by the school.
Lending her support to the launch of the Report, well-known journalist, author and model, Amanda Brunker said; "Parents should not leave it up to the teacher to educate their children on sex; they need to talk to them about it too as their role is just as important regarding sex education. And I would urge any young person if they are unsure or worried to talk to someone they trust, such as a boyfriend, girlfriend, Mum, Dad, brother, sister, or a school teacher. Although it might feel weird talking about it, it will help. If you chose to have sex, be safe and protect yourself. "
When it comes to formal school based sex education, the majority of young people felt it offered limited value, often coming "too little too late". There was variation in the formal teaching of sex education within the schools of those surveyed, but a number of consistent themes emerged across all the groups. The majority of young people felt that inadequate time was allocated to the subject and that many of the teachers were viewed to be inadequately trained, plus the information on contraception and STIs currently delivered was too late in the school cycle and should be introduced earlier, as students are becoming sexually active at an earlier age.
Mr. David Gallagher, Country Lead, Pfizer Healthcare Ireland, commented; "It is hoped this Report will generate some positive recommendations and discussion on how sexual health can be addressed with teenagers as it clearly shows that many young people are still completing secondary school with a very inadequate knowledge, both of sexual health and also of the serious risks associated with STIs. Everyone has a role to play in improving our young people’s sexual health and children should be encouraged to ask questions as they enter adolescence so that they are better equipped to make sensible choices."
Published: 24th March 2010.